Kirby Smart’s recruiting prowess is making Georgia the team to beat in SEC

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If the road to the college football national championship is paved by recruiting, then Georgia's Kirby Smart (second from right) has the Bulldogs on the right track.

ATHENS — My iPhone has numerous notification settings like I’m assuming most everybody else’s does. Maybe I have a few more just being a media member and trying to monitor as many social media and news outlet channels as possible and all. But, suffice it to say, my phone produces a lot of different sounds.

Well, that thing was chirping up a storm all day and into the evening Wednesday.

Sitting on an end table where I was trying to get some work done in my home office in the early afternoon, I’d say there was some beep, ding or chime going off pretty much every 15 or 30 seconds for the better part of a couple of hours. And every time I looked, it seemed to be telling me the same thing:

“BREAKING NEWS: Georgia signs 5-star recruiting prospect.”

Now, granted, many of the sounds were the result of the same news. A lot of them were from re-tweets from Twitter of Jeff Sentell’s reports from the press conference’s of one 2018 signee or another (and while we’re at it, please be sure to thank Sentell for his tireless work and endless driving around Atlanta on Wednesday). But clearly the Georgia fan base was excited enough about the news they were receiving to want to share it with their resident followers.

And they were right to be excited. In a word, what Smart and his staff are in the midst of doing is incredible.

First, the tempering: I have yet to experience any signing day anywhere where any school was not excited about the class it brought in. And the truth about the quality of any recruiting class is not realized until four years down the road.

That said, what Georgia did on Wednesday was undeniably exceptional. Never mind the overall ranking — which was second — or the number of 5-star prospects — which was six. The bottom line is the Bulldogs pretty much landed everybody they set out to get. And that’s an amazing feat when you’re chief competition for almost every one was Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida, FSU or Tennessee.

It was an embarrassingly rich haul.

“This class was marked by the fact that we played well,” said coach Kirby Smart, whose second Georgia team is 12-1, ranked No. 3 and playing in the College Football Playoffs. “We were ranked No. 1 early in the season there for a while and played well at the finish to beat a really good Auburn team. I think people were really affected by that.”

And it’s not over. This was only the early signing period. Georgia netted 18 players on the first day of the three-day period, being conducted for the first time this season. But the Bulldogs hope to sign anywhere between 23 and 25 before it’s over. And that won’t be until the winter signing period, which begins on national signing day Feb. 7.

“You are always recruiting,” Smart said. “There’s probably going to be some really, really intense battles come January because the guys that are left are targeted by all the top programs. There’s going to be some guys out there that we are still going to go after. It is not like you can say ‘ok, relax, we are done,’ because that’s not the case.”

That was Smart’s comment at 4 p.m. Within three hours of that signing day news conference, the Bulldogs flipped yet another recruit from Alabama. They received the paperwork of Nadab Joseph, a 4-star cornerback from Miami, at about 6:30 p.m.

A couple of things about this class thus far: It includes six 5-star-rated recruits, most in the country so far and the most in Georgia history. As of Wednesday, it’s rated No. 2 in the country (behind Ohio State) and first in the SEC. That’s including unsigned commitments.

Alabama, which is perennially in the top spot, is fifth so far with one 5-star signee. To me, that serves as further evidence that losing Smart was more of a blow to Bama than just his acumen as a defensive strategist. He might’ve meant a little something to the Tide’s recruiting as well.

It looks that way at the moment. This is the second year in a row the Bulldogs appear headed toward a Top 5 class. They were third last year (Bama was No. 1) and eighth in 2016 when Smart didn’t take over until mid-December, and then on a part-time basis.

I go back to that first year, when Smart was working so feverishly to market Georgia’s spring game as “93K Day” rather than G-Day. The Bulldogs’ fans responded that day by packing Sanford Stadium to its brim. And the major recruits that attended that day responded in kind. You may have heard of some of them, like D’Andre Swift and Mark Webb and Andrew Thomas.

That’s where the momentum started for what we’ve witnessed this year, whether it be blue-chip recruits lining up to put their name on the dotted line or the Dawg Nation traveling in great migrations to Notre Dame or Pasadena.

Smart agreed. Sort of.

“I think the momentum kicked off with the 93K-Day; that really helped us in last year’s class. (But) I don’t think it had a major effect with this year’s class,” he said on Wednesday. “It’s almost like the 93K kind of ear-marked the last class as a big momentum. This class was marked by the fact that we played well.”

Yeah, winning helps, too.

To do continue doing that, Georgia has to be sure that all this 5-star talent doesn’t yield 3-star production. Sometimes even that can be out of a coach’s control. But early returns on this staff are favorable in that respect.

“We all as Georgia fans and Dawg Nation need to understand that those … expectations or whatever they are for the kids have to be tempered,” Smart said. “Because last year’s class was anointed and this and that. Some of the kids have been successful. …. Some of them have worked really hard to get better.  Regardless of what they’re rated, regardless of how many stars they have, they’re ours.  It’s our job to develop them on and off the field.

“So we’re excited about this group, but I’m not ready to call this the greatest class ever or anything like that.”

That’s so true. Georgia has always — always — recruited well. But unless the Bulldogs can keep this season’s roll going and somehow come home with a national championship, Smart and his regime haven’t done anything that his predecessor Mark Richt and his guys did.

In fact, Smart’s tenure so far has followed Richt’s almost to the letter. The Bulldogs came up just short of winning it all in 2002, Richt’s second year, locking down the SEC championship and finishing 13-1 and No. 3 in the nation after a Sugar Bowl victory. They’d play for two more conference titles, win one more and finish in the Top 10 four more times over the next five seasons. The No. 2 finish in 2007 was the best they were able to achieve.

In between came some impressive recruiting. Georgia’s signing classes never ranked lower than ninth during that six-year run, with a best of No. 3 in 2006. Back then, Richt called it trying to “knock the lid off the program.”

Now there’s a different lid and Smart is tantalizingly close to knocking it off. That starts with recruiting and it ends with development.

So far Smart is scoring extremely high marks in both respects. Two years in, he has served notice.

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